Pyrenean Procrastination

Why take three days to post something about the Tour de France’s trip through the Pyrenees on Stages 7, 8, and 9? Because I take weekends off, and nothing happened anyway.

When this year’s unconventional Tour route was unveiled at the usual lavish ceremony, it impressed observers with the idea that the GC would remain suspenseful until at least the Stage 18 Annecy time trial, and most likely until the vicious Stage 20 ascent of Mont Ventoux. However, between all the champagne and the flashbulbs, what most failed to note was that those two late decisive stages would result in absolutely nothing happening for the first two weeks of the race. Well, with one mountain range down, we’re all well aware of that now, aren’t we?

That’s not entirely fair, of course. While the GC contenders bided, and bided, and bided their time, three riders took outstanding stage wins, a lot of people worked their tails off, and if you ignored the GC battle, or lack thereof, there was some pretty good bike racing in there. And hey, there's always the Alps. Something might happen there, I guess.

STAGE 7: Barcelona to Arcalis

Astana on Arcalis
So, if Lance Armstrong (Astana) spots an opportunity to gain a little time on other GC contenders, teammates included, and spends a bit of his and the team’s energy to exploit that opportunity, that’s smart, heads up riding.

If Alberto Contador (Astana) spots an opportunity to gain a little time on other GC contenders, teammates included, and spends a bit of his energy to exploit that opportunity, that’s worth several interviews worth of indignant grumbling about how it assuredly wasn’t “part of the plan."

That sounds about right.

For something that took only a few minutes and netted less than 20 seconds, Contador’s little escape has drawn a lot of reactions, particularly regarding what it would "do to the team." VeloNews’ John Wilcockson called the move “showboating,” and noted that Contador lost “the respect of most of his teammates.” Bob Roll has been prattling on about the horror and betrayal of a rider attacking on the final climb after his team had ridden tempo all day to discourage other attacks (where have I seen that tactic before?). And Axel Merckx commented via twitter that it was a good attack, but that you need a team to win the Tour. Look guys, I love you all, but what team have you seen that’s riding for Contador anyway? I think he’s realized that the best that following orders will get him is a cut of someone else’s prize money, and even that’s a long shot.

Personally, I’m all for Contador having shaken things up, if only because it revealed that the Astana strategy may be to just ride tempo all the way until Stage 18, and use any energy saved to sow discord in the press and make home videos.

Maybe Adjust the Spare Bike Before You Put It On the Roof
We got to see Levi Leipheimer getting his “seat adjusted” while hanging onto the team car with about 11 kilometers to go to Arcalis, a few kilometers after he unceremoniously splayed himself on the ground along with Cavendish and a few others. Hey Levi, didn’t you get dinged for something similar two years ago? Didn’t that time penalty end up being the difference between second place and third?

The Fashion Report
I know I’m going to be going against the grain here, but I find myself really liking Ag2r’s revised jerseys. While the old jersey design was just another blue and white abomination, the new ones, together with the all-black shorts with white lettering, have a sort of understated retro flair. They're not smack-you-over-the-head retro like Ullrich's Bianchi jersey, but they wouldn’t look out of place, say, riding next to Sean Kelly at the 1986 Paris-Roubaix. That said, I have no idea what that logo is, or what it’s supposed to make me buy (or, in the new lingo, “raise awareness for”)

No, no. The Other Feillu
Way up ahead of all the Astana histrionics, Brice Feillu (Agritubel) won his first professional race on the first mountain stage of his first Tour de France in his first year as a professional. Considering the press have been hyping Remi Di Gregorio (FdJ) as the next great French climbing sensation for two years now, and he’s produced nothing, that’s not too shabby. The name Feillu is more familiar on the flat stages, where older brother Roman contends for the bunch sprints. One climber and one sprinter? Either there are some odd genetics at work in that family, or the milk man has a hell of a finishing kick. Also, now I suppose I have to apologize for calling Agritubel a charity case a few days ago. That’s just great.

STAGE 8: Andorre-la-Vieille to Saint-Girons

There’s really not terribly much to say about this one. I thought Vladimir Efimkin (Ag2r) had timed it perfectly with his late race attack of the break, but it was nice work by Luis Leon Sanchez to chase at just the right time to bring it back and then shame Sandy Casar (FdJ) in the sprint. Ag2r and Nocentini also deserve some credit for preserving his yellow jersey – there wasn’t a lot of pressure being applied, but it was sort of assumed he’d just drift off of his own accord, especially after riding in the long break the day before.

The only real GC action, in fact, came from some moderate accelerations by Andy Schleck and Saxo Bank early on. They seemed to be trying to force Astana to chase Andy, since he’s a contender, and therefore force Astana into the yellow jersey before they wanted to. That would make Astana do more work during the following days, and potentially slit each others' throats during the following nights, either of which may or may not be detrimental to their race. It didn’t work, but it was an interesting tactic, and for a few brief minutes I was excited that someone involved in the GC fight was doing something that looked like racing.

Finally, Thor Hushovd (Cervelo) grabbed the green points jersey from Mark Cavendish (Columbia-HTC) by taking intermediate sprints before the heavy climbing started. Like I said – Hushovd is savvy and experienced, which should make his green jersey duel with Cavendish’s pure speed an interesting one to watch.

STAGE 9: Saint-Gaudens to Tarbes

I couldn’t help but think that, as it passed through Lourdes at the 139 kilometer mark, this stage really should have taken a right and headed down to Hautacam for a summit finish. As it was, after the potentially crippling Aspin-Tourmalet tandem, we got a 70 kilometer downhill romp into Tarbes, which pretty much sucked any GC interest right out of the stage before it even started. Nothing says “mountain stage” like a 75-rider peloton steaming into town. I think Lance Armstrong (Astana) summed it up best when he told VeloNews, “The tempo was pretty regular as no one really attacked.” Yup.

Fortunately, Franco Pellizotti (Liquigas) and Pierrick Fedrigo (BBox) made it three-for-three for the long break in the Pyrenees, and added some actual racing action to the stage by outlasting the veritable avalanche of riders pouring down at top speed from the Tourmalet. Fedrigo showed great patience and nerve when Pellizotti jumped him into the final turn at 200 meters out, calmly picking up the wheel on the exit and sitting on the Italian for a few meters before re-accelerating to take the sprint. As many have noted, the French are having a great Tour, but it’s also worth noting that this is the second win for Jean-Rene Bernaudeau’s oft-maligned Gallic-centric squad.

The other standout ride on this stage came from Rabobank’s Juan Manuel Garate, and this time he stood out because it was actually a good ride, and not just because Phil and Paul love to say “Juan Manuel Garate.” The Spaniard spent the morning in the first chase behind the break, and then spent many of the latter kilometers on the front trying to pull back Fedrigo and Pellizotti in hopes of an Oscar Friere sprint win. Most impressively, he did it all without changing facial expressions.